India is struggling to contain a growing epidemic of violent assaults, some of them lethal, against meat-eaters by self-appointed Hindu cow vigilantes.
The problem is serious enough to warrant attention from Human Rights Watch, which noted in an April 2017 report that cow vigilantes are often “linked to extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party,” so the police end up filing complaints against the victims for violating cow slaughter ordinances. These charges are sometimes leveled at victims while they are recovering from their beatings in the hospital.
In one videotaped attack, the vigilantes were seen chanting BJP political slogans as they attacked a farm family on the mere suspicion that they planned to slaughter their cows. In other cases, vigilante leaders turned out to be BJP party officials. The party has been accused of fanning nationalist sentiment by proposing a nationwide ban on cattle slaughter.
One of the ten victims killed by cow vigilantes over the past two years was a 12-year-old boy. Other victims were left alive, but were beaten and robbed, or forced to watch as their homes were vandalized.
There is, of course, a strong element of religious tension to the violence. Cows are a sacred animal to India’s majority Hindu population, while the victims of vigilante attacks tend to be Muslims or Dalits, a Buddhist minority in India.
Two weeks ago, a pair of Muslim cattle truckers were beaten to death by a mob of villages near the border with Bangladesh, in a province that does not ban the slaughter of cows. The BJP has been blamed for inspiring vigilante violence by calling for a nationwide ban on beef eating.
The Indian Supreme Court proposed new measures to combat cow vigilantism on Wednesday, in response to a petition filed by Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of national hero Mahatma Gandhi. The judges called for senior police officers to be specially assigned to handle cow vigilantism, along with increased highway patrols.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP party’s highest elected official, denounced the vigilantes by saying “some people are into crimes all night and wear the garb of gau rakshaks in the day.”
Gau Rakshak is the cow vigilantes’ preferred term for themselves, a phrase disliked by critics because it confers an aura of religious legitimacy upon thuggery and murder. Modi’s statement essentially accuses the vigilantes of being common hooligans who are using the Hindu religion as an excuse for wanton violence.